Originally published in Fortnight, no. 296, June 1991
A rich poetic harvest
John Ennis has produced that wondrous thing: the long poem. On a family outing to an arboretum he sees that it is a kind of microcosm of the earth, of all its territories and its peoples. This sparks off reflections on nature, history and humanity, interspersed with the sensuous immediacies of earth and leaf. Its multiple directions are firmly framed within the passing of the day. An unusual and accomplished work.
Originally published in Cork Examiner, 9th February 1991
Poems of beauty “like a tightened bow”
The Goose Herd by Roz Cowman, (Salmon Publishing) £8.00/£4.50). Arboretum by John Ennis, (Dedalus Editions) £4.95.
HERE is a sense in which each of these books is part of a contemporary development. With Roz Cowman, there is an association with the growing group of Irish women poets and with John Ennis there is an association with ecology. Within each of these categories a great deal of very bad poetry has been prepetrated. Thankfully, neither of these poets is guilty of it.
John Ennis’s long poem is set in Wexford’s John F. Kennedy park and is a mediation on trees, history, family and transience among other things. Like those Indian villagers who hug trees in protest against deforestation, he embraces and celebrates the arboreal world.
Where he writes with a lush extravagance and expansiveness,, Roz Cowman’s style is tightened and bunched like a nut within a shell. Each is capable of social comment: Ennis on the despoliation of the countryside; Cowman on the Irish male. Ennis has written a number of books and this is Cowman’s first.
The best of her poems remind me of that line of Yeats where he talks of beauty like a tightened bow. Taut and loaded, her style is pared and precise. Many of her poems are ciphers of disappointment: the disappointment of adulthood; the women from a home who stand at the sea’s edge, watching nothing; Berlioz at sixty and knowing too much. This melancholy surfaces in language and images that startling, clear and memorable,. Nothing can be added or taken away.
There is about many of her poems the compressed air of a child tormented by dreams, putting wounds into words that stay in the mind like the memory of Rapunzel’s hair. Images from mythology and fairytales abound and I found the personal poems, in which a psychic pressure seems to force the deeply- felt images to the surface, more successful than the almost- token and programmatic references to Irishness. Her best poems – and there are many- are quite beautiful and memorable, their language more sensual than the spare forms at first suggest. Her strong and admirable gift deserves the widest notice.
John Ennis has written a number of long poems and it is a form in which he has always been comfortable. From the very start, there has been a sense of the symphonic about the arrangement of his work. His poems suggest music in other ways as well: he is one of the most word- haunted of Irish poets and in Arboretum the sound of names of trees and plants sometimes echoes like incantations from the old Latin mass.
Such music in counterpointed in the poem his anger at modern ravages and by the sheer amount of information he gets in. He writes with infinitely more effect of the trees than of the hurt which economists can inflict on the countryside. Here, for example, is one passage:
The homes living on loans till May
The big ranchers buying up quota,
Chequebook up front, fattening.
Co- op preference for the large milk supplier.
The trouble with this is that while it’s true it’s also prosaic, like an agricultural journal’s editorial. It’s a tone which seldom occurs but it does hint at what I found to be a central problem with the poem: John Ennis’s over- riding desire to get an enormous amount of information into it. It contains megabytes of information on trees and the encyclopaedic references outweigh John Ennis’s rich lyric gift. I like his work a lot and as I have suggested before on these pages it is time that his Selected Poems appeared, and while stray lines of this poem remind me of what is best about his work, I did not feel this from the book as a whole. As with all criticism, the problem, of course, may lie with me and not with the poem. Either way, I admire the way he publishes form and theme to the limit. Such daring, though, sometimes has its price.
Words: Seán Dunne
Originally published in Irish University Review Vol. 23, No. 1, Special Issue: Eavan Boland (Spring – Summer, 1993), pp. 162-164. Published by Edinburgh University Press
John Ennis’s long poem Arboretum was the poetry prizewinner at Listowel Writers’ Week two years ago. Ennis’s notable ability to blend aspects of history, place and commentary into a poetic whole in some senses makes him unique in Irish poetry. Trees figure strongly, as might suspect, in what turns out to be a tapestry of poetic interludes woven together; ennis seems intent on discovering the precise point at which trees “Sap our myths with their own complexities / Like old confessors taking in past dioxides…”. The poem is set, apparently, in the John F. Kennedy Park in Wexford, and this quasi- historical back- drop sets off the rest. Simplistically, trees inform most of what we do and experience in some form or other; trees have similarly informed and been witness to world history. The human condition assumes an arrogance which is particularly pitiful against the overwhelming presence of these absolutes of nature. As usual with Ennis’s poetry, the language is vital, direct and often startling. He is not a comforting poet.
Originally published in the Cork Examiner, 1986
Zooming through life
The Burren Days is a longish poem of some one thousand lines. It signals an important advance in the writing career of John Ennis. A countryman, Ennis has combined in his poem hi feeling for the Irish landscape and his knowledge of, and disgust at, technological Ireland. He has managed to do so with a craft and control that distinguish this poem his last flawed by fascinating long poem, ‘Orpheus’.
The Burren Days is as much a story as a poem. Based on the legend of Diamuid and Gráinne, it tells of Ray Daly and his girlfriend Gráinne, who zoom to a world of landscape and legend on their Yamaha. Ray works as a laboratory technician, and much of the poem’s interest stems from the way Ennis sets down the scientific worked in which Ray Daly works and the scientific processes he used in the Bord Bainne laboratory. I have never seen this done before in Irish poetry; elsewhere, i have not always seen it done so well.
Set against managerial reductionism in the poem, the Burren is rich in plant- life and lyrical, subterranean mythologies. It is not sentimental opposite to the other world: it is a psychic counterpart if anything, and between them both modern Ireland is encapsulated as in a test- tube containing two different substances straining against each other.
Set in the attractive typeface, which is important for a long poem, The Burren Days shows the same delight in language as Ennis’s other books have displayed, but there is not the same proximity. There are echoes of Kavanagh: the line “Applause. Applause. ray Daly was not missed!” is a straight echo, for example, of the line “Applause / Applause / The curtain falls,” in The Great Hunger. Yet Ennis is not a Kavanagh clone: there is something of Kavanagh in anyone who writes poetry in Ireland by now, and Ennis remains his own man. A Selected Poems is about due: the best of Ennis, even when his often daring explorations of language and method do not completely work, is a rich and rewarding experience. He leaves many other poets looking watery and confined to limited forms, like people who never stir out of the house.
Words: Seán Dunne
Originally published in the Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1986
Three Irish poets to Watch
John Ennis, however, could have been adduced to O’Loughlin as one of those new Irish poets who operate with a “fully conscious innocence”. The Burren Days is the fourth book by this too- neglected, oddly gifted, undiscouraged poet, and if one needed proof of the continuing efficacy of Kavanagh’s work, one could begin right here. What a thrill to open a book which starts like this:
Ray Daly’s Super Yamaha ate up the miles and gleamed
Toward the white portals of the Bord Bainne complex
This is narrative, aware not only of its own relation to the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne, but even more immediately aware of its stylistic debt to ‘The Great Hunger’. The fact that the substance of The Burren Days is sexual joy rather than sexual repression only serves to emphasise Kavanagh’s continuing availability as an influence. Lines like the following are both fully themselves and eerily ventriloquistic:
The evening wore the sharp cold blue of early April
They’d rushed at love too strongly in the rising sun.
Withdrew from the climax till it became torture.
Lines like these begin in allusion and proceed into parody:
Applause. Applause. Ray Daly was not missed.
The minister’s gut roarded as the clapping died.
And finally, lines like these are the bonus which the Kavanagh spirit bequeaths to the Ennis voice- direct, sudden, generous, unmediated perceptions:
Daly and Joyce exchanged smiles like sister moons.
Each swung out of the other’s solitariness.
And Ray Daly loved the tremble running
Through the Chemical Plant at full stretch…
Ray Daly is a young laboratory technician, Gráinne Flynn is his student girlfriend, and Mr. Joyce is the manager of the Bord Bainne laboratory. These are the principal characters in The Burren Days, an account structured in five parts to match the five working days of Ray Daly’s week, culminating on the Friday with a visit from the Minister of Agriculture, who arrives to perform “the Ceremony of the tape” and to open a new extension to the plant. But:
At the precise second
Ray Daly, laboratory technician and sometime lover,
Brought to life his Yamaha 850,
Set out at his ease on the eternal road to Gráinne
And the great silences of Maam.
So the poem ends with a conclusion that is entirely satisfactory, since the thing is not only an account of Ray Daly’s working life but an evocation of his dream life as well: the writing is realistic insofar as it abounds in images of the new Euro- Ireland, but it’s erotic also, full of hankerings after the old aisling– Ireland. Yamaha’s and rowan berries vie with each other as poetic properties. Long descriptions of chemical processes are matched (too schematically and too unrelentingly) with daydreams of breakaway weekends in the Burren or Connemara. If at times it all feels very gawky and open faced, this is the penalty of John Ennis’ salutary readiness to dive into the usual life, put his faith in the god of details and try to close “the gap between Irish identity as it is experienced and Irish identity as it is formulated and perceived outside Ireland.” (After Kavanagh.)
Originally published in Poetry Review, 1985
One of Pearse Hutchinson’s poems, ‘Manifest Destiny’, satirises Ireland ‘tugging green plastic forelock’s to a future American President. John Ennis’s ambitious new poem takes a long look at this new, Irish Development Agency Ireland, land of EEC subsidy and Papal Visit. The book is a single long poem, an adaptation of the story of Diarmuid becomes Ray Daly (‘Durex Daly)- a lab technician working for the Irish milk board- remembering his trips all over Ireland on his Yamaha 850 Special with Grainne- a student of Irish history. The trips duplicate the light of the lovers in the original. the erotic and the timeless is juxtaposed with the detailed life of the new Ireland:
Grainne beckoned to him in the naked shower.
He sank into the trailing barley of her hair
Fine-combed in the evergold prickly river of his memory of her.
One day I’d like four sons and one daughter, she’d whispered
As the operator called testily for more 10p’s.
The poem is full, full to bursting, of the language of Ray’s Bord Bainne job. We hear of the Toluene distillation and the Van der Ploq quadruple evaporator, of demineralised whey and scorched particle test, of antimony tri- chloride and low actinic glass ware (‘For moisture will render the reagent useless’), of the Rose Gottlieb Test, the Negler reaction and the ‘the exigencies of the Carr- Price method.’ Meanwhile, the salmon die, the lakes are choked with slurry, ‘the ether of life is diminished’. There are moments during the poem when the oppositions it uses seem to be becoming too stark, its exploration of contrasts too deliberate and wilful- but in the end it is this very relentlessness which makes the poem a success., the fact that Ennis does not choose to soften of compromise from executing his long, single- minded, unified work. ‘A tour de force, a genuine long poem continuing from a single impulse’, says the blurb: it’s true.
Originally published in Poetry Ireland Review, issue 17, edited by Terence Brown
John Ennis has written a frankly pagan poem, a marvellously original re-interpretation of the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne. Diarmuid is a laboratory technician in a milk processing plant, in love with a pillion-passenger Grainne in an Ireland of recognisable contemporaneity. The language of science, of sexual delight and a kind of slack everydayness (which reminds of Kavanagh) combine to create a wholly delightful poetic strangeness. This will give you an idea of the thing:
The eyes of Mr Joyce tracked down Ray Daly.
Farm soil blew grey and sleety in the north wind
The green grass bleached. A black frost clung.
The April air was white and dry with foreboding
The sapling trees bent like old lanterns in the breeze.
Daffodils danced insanely. Their yellow cups shook,
And a few attempts at forsythia bloomed in gold.
Across one shrub a juggernaut had reversed.
Within the snowy portals of Bord Bainne land
Presumptive teenagers from RTCs pimply
Adolescents on grant from the National Science Council,
Technicians with Diplomas on a part-time basis
Performed lactose, casein, anti-biotic analyses,
Novices on the grateful periphery of Science.
But in this bizarre world of papal visits and strange new chemical processes, Gráinne is her old self, a girl out of the old songs, the pagan, Gaelic world still intact, whatever else isn’t in this poem of frank sexual celebration:
The birch leaf fell from her cardigan
like an accusation.
Her father purpled. The Papal Visit was
And Gráinne remembered the blackbird singing
On the rhodendron beyond Tipperary.
Originally published in Hibernia, July 10th, 1980
John Ennis’ language is far richer than Harry Clifton’s, although sometimes leading to an opposite fault: that of puffing out lines where simple ones should have been preferred, as in the title- poem of A Drink of Spring ( Gallery, £3.60 / £1.80). While a poet of talent and power, Ennis also has a disconcerting habit of marring his work with the most abject bathos and only though strict culling and editing of future collection s will his strength as a poet be fully evident. A Drink of Spring includes several exactly- observed and deeply- felt poems, including ‘Meeting at a Salesyard’, the riveting ‘Mortuary’ and a noble fantasia on Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Verse as awkward as ‘Exit’ and Treatment by Suction’ (Retch and you retch all alone”) betrays an uncertainty of tone in an otherwise dignified monument to the poet’s father.
Words: Dennis O’Driscoll
Originally published in John F. Deane’s Poetry Workshop in the Irish Independent, February 1980.
GALLERY PRESS has recently published A Drink of Spring, a collection of poems by John Ennis, selling at £1.80 paper and £3.60 bound. This is Ennis’s third collection; Night on Hibernia appeared in 1976 and Dolmen Hill in 1977. John Ennis is a winner of several awards, notable the Kavanagh Award in 1975, and he regularly takes the stand as prizewinner in the Listowel Writers’ Week poetry competition.
For me, A Drink of Spring is a great step forward in Ennis’s work. In this book the often jerky and incomplete phrasings of earlier work give way to an easier voice, closer to the living voice; there is flow and poise rather staccato blows. Further, some of the very long lines of the earlier work cease sliding over the ends of the pages and are brought to more manageable proportions, though Ennis remains one of the longest puckers in the game; the overlong line tends to lose rhythm and unity.
I have always been somewhat alienated by our friends the Greek gods whom Ennis fond of calling in; ‘Orpheus’ in the collection Dolmen Hill is a big, fat poem which, though relieved by much humour, gets lost for me in an indulgence in the opulence of language and imagery the Greek lads are inclined to bring with them.
Influences, too, are more absorbed in A Drink of Spring; Kavanagh’s sense of the mythic in country patterns of life, the linguistic flair and the sensuousness of Hopkins, the sharp- eyed, whimsical and architectural skills of Austin Clarke. The adjective still play a vital role in Ennis’s work, but there is less chaining of them together into a forced labour.
A Drink of Spring, as well as containing poems individually and highly organised in a unity of mood and image develops Ennis’s unique skills as a poem- builder, sequence0 builder, into such a unified achievement as this book, which becomes, indeed, almost one long poem in parts. The collection is altogether concerned with the death of the poet’s father and contains one of the fullest accounts of a relationship between father and son that I have read.
The poems move through three distinct cycles which come across as ordered at the ceremonies of Holy Week are ordered into Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Resurrection Vigil. The concerns of the book do, in fact, relate to these three days in a thematic way, also; there is the recollection of the sharing of a life in all its fulness, its rites, it resitancies; follows the death, very fully described, of a death; and moves into the hesitant and questioning area of the waiting for resurrection.
This awareness of meaning combines with much that is very Irish in poetry, the relation of incident and detail, allowing sense of scene and mood to build up a response in the reader. In this book, scene and mood are very successfully detailed; there is precision of atmosphere and detail; all of this producing a great deal of individual poems that are fairly successful in themselves, but culminating in a very powerful overall effect. The only danger in this type of collection is a tendency to dissipate the urgency of the emotions, the rhythm of the unifying theme, in other words, the danger of losing the wood for the trees.
There are, I suspect, several embryonic themes through the sequence that will be developed in later work, above all the personal experience and conflict of entering and leaving the priesthood and seminary. The individual details of quotation and analysis I leave to the reviews; this collection has excited me in its overall effect and I would heartily recommend it as unique in the long series of collection of poems that have appeared in the last years.
Words: John F. Deane